Does Reading Really Matter?

Scary hypothetical from Michael Roger’s Practical Futurist column on

December 25, 2025 — Educational doomsayers are again up in arms at a new adult literacy study showing that less than 5 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.
The obsessive measurement of long-form literacy is once more being used to flail an education trend that is in fact going in just the right direction. Today’s young people are not able to read and understand long stretches of text simply because in most cases they won’t ever need to do so.
It’s time to acknowledge that in a truly multimedia environment of 2025, most Americans don’t need to understand more than a hundred or so words at a time, and certainly will never read anything approaching the length of an old-fashioned book…

It’s clear that short-form consumption of digital texts is rapidly displacing “old-fashioned” book-length publications for reference-oriented material and other contexts where packaged assemblies of content were an artifact of the economics of paper-based distribution. And, as consumers now have many more portable entertainment options to choose from, it seems logical that novel reading is likely to occupy a smaller slice of the average leisure-time budget. I don’t view these as bad things, even though the result may well be a net decrease in long-form reading (although given the rise of Harry Potter et. al. it’s not 100% clear that there’s actually a decrease yet, even among younger demographic).
But this doesn’t mean that literacy is worthless. I believe Michael probably was being tongue-in-cheek but there are people seriously arguing this position. At its core it’s an elitist argument, as highlighted later in this:

A broad written vocabulary and strong compositional skills are also powerful ways to organize and plan large enterprises, whether that means launching a new product, making a movie or creating legislation. But for the vast number of the workers who actually carry out those plans, the same skills are far less crucial. The nation’s leaders must be able to read; for those who follow, the ability should be strictly optional.

I’m passionate around enabling digital publications, rather than say music, video, or games (even though these are a lot sexier areas of digital content right now). This comes in part from a core belief that the above outcome is 180 degrees from where humanity needs to be headed. People need to empowered to access and create information in all its forms. Rich media is great and will be increasingly prevalent, but is not sufficient to convey all types of information. And books are not just for those fortunate enough to live near a Barnes and Noble or where will deliver overnight.

2 Responses to Does Reading Really Matter?

  1. Bill, I have to accuse you of being sensible. It’s a serious charge. Not everybody recovers from being labelled thoughtful. One can imagine how your comments could be taken up in a social networking environment, where an oddball voting process can determine whether the ability to construct and retain a broad narrative is ruled to be good or bad. Oh, why oh why do so many advocates of New Media, McCoy excepted, believe that the surest sign of a legacy intelligence is the belief in the need to exercise judgment?

  2. bowerbird says:

    > I believe Michael
    > probably was being
    > tongue-in-cheek
    no, really? :+)
    > but there are people
    > seriously arguing
    > this position.
    seriously? who?
    > At it’s core
    > it’s an
    > elitist argument
    i would hope you’d think
    grammar is important too.